Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

Arctic Explorers and American Culture

by Michael F. Robinson

University of Chicago Press 200p

ISBN 0226721841

When ‘Arctic Fever’ swept across the nation

 “My world has been so closely tied to theirs” writes Michael F. Robinson, a New England history professor who has researched the persona of 19th and 20th century Arctic explorers, seeking to find answers for what he calls the Arctic Fever. Kane and Hall and Greeley and Wellman provide abundant material in this quest prior to his capping the Cook-Peary saga that would straddle the two centuries. 

Their world, not surprisingly, involved people who might not have made it in conventional society, but who in their chosen environment stood out as singular achievers and heroes of the readers of America’s evolving “penny press” that enshrined them. Robinson’s introduction starts out with Peary and his conclusion also returns to his story.

His “model of manliness” theory occupies the half century between the end of the Civil War and America’s entrance into the First World War (excluding the opportunity for manly activities in the few weeks it took to destroy the remnants of the decaying Spanish Empire in 1898). We are told throughout the book that Arctic exploration was but an extension of this manly urge. 

Robinson writes early on that his work was “guided by new scholarship,” yet it is precisely his avoidance of the growing literature on Cook and Peary within the past quarter century that one can find fault. As his concluding chapter deals with the two Polar antagonists it is worthwhile to search his unpublished, primary and secondary references, and to express a disappointment in the absence of the true scholarship that has emerged here and abroad. 

First, let the reader deal with the author’s “Fever," the late 19th century movement that wept across the nation as dozens of expeditions sailed to the north to find the fabled sea route to the Orient that had eluded Franklin and others. Some, like Kane and Hall, were quasi-mystics and even fundamentalists-on-ice. Their quest was elusive Holy Grail of the north, the geographical North Pole. That this was an extension of American manifest destiny can be argued, though the riches were largely abstract and even the Canadians expressed more concern for raiding Irish-American Fenians than the planting of the Stars and Stripes in their high latitudes. 

Robinson should wish that he had employed a more knowledgeable fact-checker for his chapter on Cook and Peary, for he repeats his errors in the Cook profile published in the 2005 Encyclopedia of the Arctic (Cook reached the Pole April 21, not the 22nd; most scholars credit him with saving the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, not just a gratuitous reference to his anti-scurvy diet). In fact it is the absence of any historians and writers in the 85 years of literature which is marked: only Edwin Swift Balch is mentioned (absent are Hall, Shea, Lewin, Hayes, Freeman, Mowat, Wright, Herbert and Henderson or any of the Russian scholars, including Koryakin and Shrapo). 

Curious, is his credit to an obscure politician, Chauncy Depew, of the often-quoted line “Cook was a liar and a gentlemen, Peary was neither,” when in fact virtually all scholars of the controversy and biographers of both explorers have recognized it as from Peter Freuchen, an early Peary advocate.

The book merits attention, but the facts and conclusions only call for more serious appraisal. The omissions and absence of stark arguments of commercial gain by explorers (such as Peary’s financial and political rewards from the theft of the Cape York meteorites) raise more questions than it does present arguments. 



Read earlier reviews of polar literature


Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society